The Brain Stealers

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster; ACE, 1954

The Brain-Stealers by Murray Leinster (1896 – 1975)  was published as such in 1954.  It appeared much earlier in 1947 as a novella in Startling Stories. I read the 1954 novel in the ACE edition (1977?) with cover done by Stephen Hickman.  This is the first Leinster novel I have read, though I have read a couple of his short stories.  Mainly, I read it because I enjoy plowing through these 1950s novels.

I read the first chapter once before.  At that time I put the book down because I just did not feel that it was something I could get into.  However, this reading, I read that chapter and forced myself to keep on reading.  I mention this because I think this novel starts at the right place, but it is quite unfamiliar and jarring.  Weird stuff.

And then the rest of the novel is built on a lot of coincidence.  Readers who are irritated by authors who set up such helpful coincidences for the characters or plot will probably give this novel much lower marks based on this.  I, however, don’t really mind.  I want to be entertained. I’ll overlook major, obvious coincidences if you have a story to tell.  So, the main character, James Hunt, just happens to be precisely the person we need:  the only one on Earth capable of dealing with this particular alien invasion. Remarkable coincidence.

Well, it is the future – and finally it has happened:  Security Police control the world.  Everything is overseen and regulated by Security.  Of course this is yet another iteration of the fear of Big Brother.

The people of Earth were very secure, to be sure.  They were protected against everything that Security could imagine as happening to them.  But they weren’t free any longer.  And the tragedy was that many of the guiding minds of Security were utterly sincere, though there were self-seekers and politicians merely seeking soft jobs and importance among Security officials. –  pg. 25, Chapter 5

The main character was a young scientist who is under arrest by Security for not obeying their regulations regarding scientific experiment.  We meet him as he is making a daring (read:  outlandish) escape.  Anyway, out of the frying pan and into the fire…. Jim Hunt finds himself in the middle of a rural community which is under the control of vampiric aliens.  Of course Jim recognizes what is going on and can fight against it – he was a scientist who worked specifically in the area of thought-transmission. How convenient.

Leinster does a pretty blunt job of showing how man can be enslaved/hampered by others, by himself, etc.  Leinster compares the concept of safety with the concept of freedom.  This is a good novel for readers who want yet another story of thought-control and Big Brother.  Granted, this Big Brother seems less aggressive than other iterations – it is still willing to hand out Life Sentences for anyone who disobeys.  And disobedience to the aliens who are enslaving mankind is tantamount to death.  Still, obedience to the aliens generally results in death as well.

They had exactly one desire, to be warm and comfortable and fed.  That happy estate called for the enslavement of other creatures intelligent enough to provide warmth and comfort and food.  Actually, the Things had only one technique and one trick, but the combination was deadly. . . . . When desire to serve the Things became a passion as sincere and unreasoning as patriotism, their victims set joyously about the enslavement of their fellow men.  They schemed for it.  They planned for it.  They devised far-reaching and beautifully planned campaigns to bring it about. . . . . But of course a man in a state of inner exaltation is not so good a workman, and there is a find edge gone from his perceptions because he is lost in his contentment.  – pg. 74, Chapter 11

This sort of narrative gets repetitive.  Leinster re-explains the situation over and over again throughout the novel.  Readers will not miss what is happening.  It gets tedious.  However, to his credit, Leinster does attempt to provide some background and expansion of the “science” in the story.  I am not saying that the science is always true and valid, nor am I saying that he follows it all the way to its conclusion.  But it is nice to know he makes an attempt to make some of these things “realistic.”  Still, the reader will get really tired of being told how the aliens just want to eat and be warm.

Of course, epistemologically there is trouble.  How is immaterial thought affected by material substance (iron, in particular).  Are thoughts “fields”? Electrical waves/fields?  As I said, Leinster’s “science” is best read lightly and kindly.  At least he doesn’t just ignore it.

Also, it is worth mentioning that Leinster clearly wants us to see that mankind requires a restlessness and drive in order to succeed and make progress.  Challenge, struggle, and striving are key components to mankind’s advance.  When mankind is content he is lethargic and stagnant. Good moral lesson there.

3 stars

The View From The Stars

The View From the Stars - Walter M. Miller, jr. - Ballantine; 1965

The View From the Stars – Walter M. Miller, jr. – Ballantine; 1965

The View From The Stars by Walter M. Miller, jr. (1923 – 1996) was first published in 1965.  It is a collection of nine short stories all previously published in a variety of genre-related publications.  This is his second published collection of short stories.  I read his novel A Canticle for Leibowitz and was impressed, but not tremendously so.

If I knew nothing of the author besides what I read in this collection, I would not be surprised if/when you tell me that the author committed suicide.  It is clear to me he was “unsettled” even from these writings.  I think he took his life after his wife passed away.  But allegedly he suffered depression or PTSD, or something. Well, also allegedly he was a USAF bomber who wrecked Monte Cassino…. so I just cannot conjure any sympathy for him.  Nevertheless, one of the striking tones that I found in this collection was a depressed and heavy one.  Like most good science fiction, Miller asks significant questions about mankind and existence and the future.  He examines mankind’s role in the universe in a number of scenarios.  Somehow, though, there is also an added heaviness that pervades all of these stories.  Miller is not a happy guy.

  • You Triflin’ Skunk (1955)
  • The Will (1954)
  • Anybody Else Like Me (1952)
  • Crucifixus Etiam (1953)
  • I, Dreamer (1953)
  • Dumb Waiter (1952)
  • Blood Bank (1952)
  • Big Joe and the Nth Generation (1952)
  • The Big Hunger (1952)

These stories generally have the grim/dark element of destruction (either individually or on a broad scale) running through them.  They are not “uplifting” stories, really.  There is a hefty dose of destruction in most of these stories and because of that I was not able to race through them.  It is not easy to read heavy material.  However, there is a lot more going on than just a darker feeling.  Throughout all of the stories is a persistent awareness, questioning, and allusion to religion.  Miller is not an irreligious or blasphemous person in these stories.  Nevertheless, he does strongly demonstrate his difficulty with creation of man by the Divine.  In many stories there is a reference to man having descended directly from ape.  There are often comparisons between man and ape.

But Miller also examines mankind’s relationship with technology.  Does tech rule man or man rule tech?  What is the value of tech? Can man appreciate that value?  Is tech to be feared?  What about man’s misuse of technology? There are also places whereat he seems to gently pit technology against religion, just to see what happens.

You Triflin’ Skunk – 4 stars – this was my second favorite story in the book.  It is very Southern.  But its also got this dark humor which is good for late-night reading.  I got a kick out of this one.  Miller is also displaying his writing skill; the tone is tense, the setting is excellent.  One feels pity for the characters and I really enjoyed the ending.

The Will – 2 stars – this was my least favorite in the book.  This one contains a solid dose of misery and depression.  Despite, I think, its effort at being futuristic and hopeful.  I don’t really like reading about dying kids.

Anybody Else Like Me – 2 stars – this story is creative and has a developed suspense factor.  However, I feel like the creativity is stifled a bit by a somewhat unrelateable plot.  I just wanted more out of the story.  The main character did not evoke any sort of sympathy or interest. But I am no fan of such characters…

Crucifixus Etiam – 3 stars – dismal, heavy, sad.  Here Miller really wrestles with the concepts of sacrifice, the future of mankind, and planet colonization.  Miller asks if the value of goals changes based on its proximity.  There are a number of stories in this ilk that come from the 1950s star science fiction writers.  However, while this one really makes strong and painful points, it is a heavy read tinged with vague hopelessness.

I, Dreamer – 3 stars – This story is the most dark and dismal of the bunch.  This is really a heavy and shocking read.  It is also exceedingly well-written – poetic and artistic.  Unfortunately, there is the same sad and hopeless feeling as in some of the other stories – though here it is amped up.  I really think the writing level is excellent, but I do not think I can give this to many people to read. If anything, this is a story that will stick with me for awhile.

Dumb Waiter – 4 stars – This is my favorite story in the book (and probably most readers’ favorite).  It has a very nicely done post-apocalyptic urban/technological story.  Math, logic, survival skills all play a role.  In places, the tone is as relentless and ruthless as the characters need to be in order to survive.  This story is edgy, as they say; gritty.  I love anything with robots and computers, of course.  But there is one small section that is weird and disturbing. (Hello, why didn’t someone send Miller to a shrink in 1952?)  but that can be omitted without loss to the story.

Blood Bank – 3 stars – this is a good story, that might even be great.  Here we have the only real “adventure” story in the collection.  But even so, this is not mere pulp.  Miller uses it to ask any number of questions about evolution, nature, ethical motives, intergalactic politics, and military “virtue.”  There is an excellent level of cultural awareness.  However, the ending is rather spare and there are places where the story meanders a bit from its main path. Don’t worry, here too is a level of shock and misery.

Big Joe and the Nth Generation – 4 stars – this story is really creative, interesting, and technological.  There is a lot of suspense and the story really resonates with the reader.  It is like Indiana Jones meets John Carter, I think.  “What is a technologist?” – is asked, which is a question that really runs through this whole collection, but only actually voiced here.  Once again, elements of sacrifice, religion, and future planet-forming are touched upon.

The Big Hunger – 2 stars – This story did not really do much for me.  Maybe because it was predictable – it isn’t so much of a story as a rumination on mankind’s predictability.  History is cyclic and repeating.  Man is ambitious and stubborn.  Man has come from apes.  And mainly:  what does technology “think” of man?  I feel like this has been done in a more interesting way plenty of times – but maybe not with this artistic writing?  I get what Miller is doing here, but I just found it droll and preachy.

Therefore, definitely read Dumb Waiter and Big Joe and the Nth Generation.  If you still want more, read You Triflin’ Skunk.  Other than that, this is somewhat too dismal for me to recommend openly to all.

3 stars

Clans of the Alphane Moon

Clans of the Alphane Moon - PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon – PKD; Mariner Books

Clans of the Alphane Moon is the seventh novel that I have read by Philip K. Dick.  The first I read was Valis – and I was totally unsure what to make of it, except a strong inclination that it was quite good.  It stuck with me for awhile after I finished it.  The next five books were a bit easier to digest, but they challenged me as to rating them.  They are very good, but also had some not good elements to them.  I gave most of them three stars for a rating.  PKD has become, for me, a very difficult author to rate.  His novels are not like any other novels.  PKD novels stand on their own, so I do not think I can compare them with anything else.  However, after I finished this novel, I immediately knew what I would rate it. It is definitely five stars.

There are three main points I want to state in this review and that readers of this review should take away from my commentary.  First:  this novel was the most science fiction-y of all the 7 PKD novels I’ve read.  Second (and perhaps very related to the first):   this novel was the most exciting and adventurous as well.  Third:  this novel really seems like it contains more PKD than the others.  More honest, open, and present PKD than in the other novels.  That’s rather impressive considering how close some of the later novels come to being semi-autobiographical. I think that while Valis is very revealing, it is also far darker and somber.  This novel gives us a lighter PKD with hope still in his heart.

The novel started off a little blah for me – interpersonal marital relationship dispute is not of interest to me.  And very quickly I decided I disliked the main character’s ex-wife.  She really is a harridan.  She really got my goat, as the saying goes.  But then, too, Chuck was toxic.  He seemed so spineless and droll.  His misery was just as bad as his ex-wife’s hostility.

But then things got quickly complex.  And then there were aliens – intriguing and interesting aliens.  Psi-aliens.  Aliens with neat “powers.”  But of course, there was this jerk in the TV entertainment industry who was involved in the storyline and was mucking things up for Chuck and his already wretched life. Luckily, Chuck has this police officer friend who can turn back time – but no more than fifteen minutes.

Be sensitive to the scenes and situations in this novel and you can practically feel what PKD was thinking or feeling as he was writing them…. or as he lived them.  It is slightly creepy, very intriguing, and shockingly real feeling.

I particularly appreciate the ethical questions that roll through the story.  There is not a heavy-handed pounding on the reader – the morality story is just there and the reader may participate or not as they choose.  I like that PKD does not feel the need to preach or argue – he presents unique and sometimes convoluted scenarios and then merely asks:  now what?

It was first published in 1964.  In June of 2014, a contributor to The Guardian wrote an article which mentions this novel by PKD.  The author of the article (Sandra Newman) seems to think she is praising the slack, hackneyed, works of the era.  She lumps this novel by PKD in with a few others, commenting that these novels are quick and dirty and certainly not high literature – but that they are really satisfying and unbeatable.  Frankly, I think her comments backfire on her. I do not think her so-called classification is valid.  I do not think this is just “typical of the times” in which it was written.  Also, I think her article bespeaks a very superficial read.

If this was the only PKD novel I had read, I might still give it four stars.  I would not appreciate it like I do or feel that I have as good of an understanding of PKD qua PKD if I had not read six other of his novels.  I was never a rabid PKD fan.  I just know there’s more going on here than a “wild west / beam-me-up” science fiction adventure.  If you don’t think a moon colony composed of former groups of mentally ill people has anything considerable to offer, well, you probably don’t have much of an imagination.

Yes.  The key location in this novel is a moon in the Alpha Centuri system.  An alphane moon, if you will.  At one time it was a mental institution of Terrans (Earth-folk), but for the last 25+ years it has become an autonomous, individual “colony” with each mental illness group forming their own society.  These clans then work together (tentatively, but still necessarily) to govern the planet.  And now Terra wants her moon back.  But there’s more politics in the mix.  The aliens with which Terra recently fought a war want this moon, too.  PKD’s playing with the concepts of mental illness is fascinating.  He clearly has an interest in the topic and he uses this concept in his novel without disdain or babble. He handles it perfectly – a seamless element in the novel.

PKD is also at his funniest.  For example:  the slime mold Lord Running Clam (who possesses St. Paul’s caritas).  In chapter 12 when Hentman and Chuck mix up Paraclete and parakeet – I laughed out loud.  Its really funny. And its really PKD.

5 stars

Tik-Tok

Tik-Tok - John Sladek; DAW, 1985  cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok – John Sladek; DAW, 1985 cover art: Peter Gudynas

Tik-Tok by John Sladek (1937 – 2000) was first published in 1983.  It won the 1984 British Science Fiction Association Award.  I read the DAW 1985 edition with cover art by Peter Gudynas.  At 254 pages, this is a relatively fast read, nothing overwhelmingly difficult or causing brain-drain.

The whole novel is something of a vicious satirical autobiography of the title character, a robot named Tik Tok.  This name should be familiar to all of those who are acquianted with L. Frank Baum’s Oz series.  In that series, a servant “mechanical man” is named Tik Tok. Using flashbacks this autobiography, Me, Robot, is a parody of Isaac Asimov’s famous I, Robot novel.  Parodying Asimov’s Three Laws of Robotics, Sladek utilizes the story of a robot to heap condemnation upon human society.  In essence, the novel is not Tik-Tok, but rather Me, Robot and we are shown the worst of humanity through the eyes of the character Tik Tok.

When I say “the worst of humanity,” I think many readers may skim that phrase.  Sladek traipses his robot character through many aspects of human society – the taboo, the ridiculous, the morally decrepit – and despises them.  However, Sladek (and therefore Tik Tok) keep a distant and rather deadpan reaction throughout.  Readers may be more accustomed to virulent and emotional ravings about the ills of society and so be surprised when, here, they come upon a muted bluntly stated criticism.

At most, Tik Tok expresses only a vague surprise at the depths of immorality and ridiculousness that humanity affects. Nevertheless, the experiences that Tik Tok shares in his autobiography are from all locations, walks of life, and classes of people.  In particular, the tactless yuppie and the ennui of the absurdly wealthy are highlighted.  However, a Southern plantation family’s fall from grace, religious organizations, politics – in and out of America, sports, art and artisan lifestyles, hippies, activist groups, health care and medical organizations, commercialism, etc. are all mocked and shown to be farcical.

The storyline of Tik Tok is only interesting insofar as reading about robots is interesting.  Tik Tok is mostly honest and only once witty to a noteworthy extent, so his autobiography is more so about the reactions humans have toward him.  His “owners” have been from a variety of walks of life – but all possessed of a wretchedness that is characteristically (as Tik Tok sees it) human.  They are stupid, conniving, vicious, sadistic, perverted, immoral, sycophantic, hedonist, and lazy.  Even the game-players are cheaters.  This book is about as anti-human, anti-compassionate, nihilist, and bitter as any book I know of.  But the most horrific element of humanity as depicted in this novel is that they are all totally and willingly blinded to truths that they do not like; i.e. that a robot can be just as evil as they are.

There were times when I wondered whether the asimovs even existed.  It was very easy to imagine that there were no asimov circuits, but that people and robots had both been conned into believing in programmed slavery.  The idea of turning moral decisions into digital data (and screening out wrong ones) was powerful and attractive.  People wanted it to be true.  They wanted robots incapable of sin, trustworthy slaves.  So of course the manufacturers of robots would invent imaginary circuits to make it so.  Ecce robo, they’d say.  Here is a happy slave with a factory guarantee of trustworthiness. – chapter E, pg. 63

From the first chapter to the last, humans deceiving themselves as to what robots are capable of is constantly thrown at the reader. It seems ludicrous and absurd that humans are so clueless to such an extent.  There are incidents spoofing the Titanic, religious evangelists, and even fast-food.

The old-fashioned hamburger was, in some run-down areas, no longer made of genuine soya, but was bulked out with chili-favored sawdust, celery-taste cotton waste, and so on, ending up so highly flavored that no new additive would be detected.  – Chapter S, pg. 216

The criticism and bitterness toward humanity is actually so profound that it seems difficult to believe that Sladek wrote this in the early 1980s, because it surely seems still relevant today.  And while I am not usually a fan of “over the top” miserableness, I appreciate the work in this novel.  The current “hype” of pseudo-dystopian literature seems outright heroic and also part of that “total, willing denial” of reality when compared to this novel. This book is decidedly not for everyone.  Good for when a mostly intelligent reader feels sick of society and is repulsed by the plastic, immoral, and gross face of humanity.  Tick tock…

4 stars

Citizen in Space

Citizen in Space – Robert Sheckley; Ballantine, 1955; cover art: Richard Powers

I finished the short story collection Citizen in Space by Robert Sheckley (1928 – 2005).  It was first published in 1955 and contains twelve stories – the majority of which had appeared in Galaxy Magazine.  I have recently been stuck in the 1950s as far as my reading goes, and the cover of this book looks so colorful that it always catches my eye.  Richard Powers created this cover.  Anyway, this is the first Sheckley I have read, although I have heard from a variety of sources that he is one of the “grandmasters” of science fiction short story writing.  I reviewed a collection by Kornbluth and then one by Sturgeon not too long ago, so I feel I was really into the swing things with short stories.  Sometimes, a reader feels like a great novel, sometimes just shorter works are perfect for the day.

In all of these stories, Sheckley is critical of society.  He questions the current conceptions of civilization qua civilization.  His best questioning, I think, comes when he highlights the paradoxes and contrary outcomes of intentional ethical scenarios/acts, etc.  In other words, when Sheckley presents characters whose acts conclude in unexpected – unintended – ways, his stories excel. In many places, Sheckley plays on the idea of concepts that are heavily influenced by a limited perspective.  And sometimes, this even results in peeking at simulacra, which I find super fun in science fiction.

Here are the stories in this collection:

  • The Mountain Without a Name – 3 stars – (1955)
  • The Accountant – 3 stars – (1954)
  • Hunting Problem – 5 stars – (1955)
  • A Thief in Time – 2 stars – (1954)
  • The Luckiest Man in the World – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Hands Off – 5 stars – (1954)
  • Something for Nothing – 4 stars – (1954)
  • A Ticket to Tranai – 5 stars – (1955)
  • The Battle – 2 stars – (1954)
  • Skulking Permit – 4 stars – (1954)
  • Citizen in Space – 3 stars – (1955)
  • Ask a Foolish Question – 4 stars – (1953)

The Mountain Without a Name is the first story in the book.  I gave this one three stars because I felt it was precisely what a science fiction story should be; a solid start to the book.  The frustration of the main character, Morrison, is evident and the environmental ethics of terraforming as a commercial enterprise drive the storyline.  Primitives and magic also play a role here – juxtaposed against the final quote of the book “Where do we go from here?” (a question the primitives wouldn’t know how to ask).

The Accountant is more fantasy than science fiction.  It is a relatively “cute” story – the main character is interesting.  Here is a witty, critical commentary on society.  However, like all of Sheckley’s critiques and complaints – done in a gentle and oblique manner. Again, three stars.

Hunting Problems did not start too highly in my esteem. I really do not go in for “coming of age” stories.  However, the occasional alien terminology/vocabulary interested me.  I’ll be honest:  I loved the ending.  The human characters are a bit “plastic” and “stereotypical,” but maybe that’s okay for this story.  Sheckley’s got a little more obvious disdain here for the humans than he usually shows in other stories. Still, five stars….

A Thief in Time was only a decent, basic read.  I’m not a fan of time-travel paradox stories.  Too much jammed into this one made it annoying and made me wonder why authors ever attempt time-travel paradox stories.  Of note, this is a story wherein Sheckley explores the concept of utopia, however here it is the stereotypical one. Only two stars for this one.

The Luckiest Man in the World is the shortest work in the book.  It presents an oddly optimistic, pro-science post-apocalyptic scenario.  This is not a new story, per se, but the positivity and optimism seemed “new.”  In any case, it is important to see that of all the challenges mankind faces, it seems the need for society/companionship is one that cannot be conquered by mere science.

Hands Off is one of those “cautionary tales” that one remembers and worries about even if the story isn’t particularly great.  Because in the case in which one finds oneself in an alien environment, all these warnings seem valid and crucial.  This story did seem slightly more heavy-handed than the previous ones, but no matter how overt or blatant, it still had a couple quirky twists and turns.  A good one to have young undergraduates read in their beginning Ethics courses.  Four stars.

Something For Nothing is supremely ironic and witty.  It suggests that greed, haste, assumptions lead to ruin.  But also that man cannot isolate himself from the bigger entity – government, IRS, society, civilization, etc.  There is also a fun quote:  “When the miraculous occurs, only dull, workaway mentalities are unable to accept it.”  Anyway, something for nothing / something out of nothing.  Either way, this is a unique piece. Four stars.

A Ticket To Tranai is one of the longer works in this collection.  It is creative and thought-provoking. Sure, the characters are a bit wooden (in all of these stories, they tend to be – but the main character here is actually named ‘Goodman’), but this is a curious look at intentions and ethics within society.  In this story Sheckley questions the concepts of (again) utopia, ethics, social change, and feminism.  The science fiction takes a backseat here – even though we have gone to the edge of the galaxy – this story is best enjoyed by those who like to play conceptual engineer. I gave this five stars and recommend it for all readers.

Skulking Permit is one of those unpredictable stories where the omniscient reader has to keep shaking their head at the silly characters.  The story is about a long-forgotten Earth colony that has recently been re-contacted by Imperial Earth.  Earth demands that the colony be up to “Earth standards” (which have long since lost any meaning to the colonists). This results in a bit of a farcical comedy. Definitely a unique piece, so I gave it four stars.

Citizen in Space is the title of the collection and though I gave it three stars, I cannot say I was really thrilled by the story.  It is good fiction, also a bit light on the science and a bit heavier on the “criticize society” parts.  Nevertheless, it is all couched in a lovely witty amusement that is good entertainment. Three stars.

Finally, the collection ends with Ask a Foolish Question.  This is the most esoteric of pieces in the collection.  Many readers who are not given to contemplation or introspection may not tolerate this one.  However, philosophers will be amused by this. The underlying suggestion is valid, if not obvious.  It is interesting and novel to see this wrapped in any kind of science fiction.  Four stars.

Overall, this is a great collection of really good stories.  The science fiction is present but not overwhelming.  All of the characters are wooden – like any true 1950s science fiction – but the concepts and the ideas are priceless.  Above all, entertainment is not sacrificed for any sort of ideology-mongering or attempt to seem philosophical.  These are amusing and clever and should be enjoyed by most (if not all) readers. I am definitely going to read more Sheckley.

4 stars

A Princess of Mars

A Princess of Mars – Edgar Rice Burroughs

A Princess of Mars by Edgar Rice Burroughs was first published in serial form in 1912.  It was published as a complete work in book form in 1917.  I read this in 2014 – so quite some time after it was first released.  I feel like between 1912 and 2014 several generations of humans have read and reviewed and commented on this work.  Allegedly, it influenced a whole slew of authors and writings.  So, what could I add to all that has been said already?  Whatever could be said, has most likely already been said.

I read this book in several formats:  on my Kindle, in an omnibus, and in a single-copy format. Whichever format was closest at hand, I picked up and read.  There have been heaps of editions for this novel. I think the most famous are the Michael Whelan and the Frank Frazetta covers.  The digital copy that I read included the original 1917 cover art.

This novel is quite full of action and adventure – bursting with it, really, to the point where, as a reader, I was exhausted with the non-stop action.  However, in the first quarter of the novel, there is a good deal more speculation and the story has a drop’s worth more explanation than the last chunk.  For example, in chapter one (On the Arizona Hills), our intrepid hero John Carter shares with us:

My mind is evidently so constituted that I am subconsciously forced into the path of duty without recourse to tiresome mental processes.  However that may be, I have never regretted that cowardice is not optional with me.

I think that little quote from early in the novel basically sums up John Carter’s personality and worldview – and therefore explains all of his actions and choices henceforth.  I think there are about a dozen ways to interpret this personality.  Impulsive and rash are examples of an unflattering interpretation.  I think this blends, though, with Carter’s odd and extreme “love” for Dejah Thoris.  It is love at first sight with these two. Perhaps the love is born of some overprotective masculine view of a “damsel in distress,” but it seems to morph into some Helen of Troy for whom a thousand ships are launched scenario.  After all, we are told – repeatedly – there is nothing that Carter won’t do for his beloved Dejah.  This love element is believable and honest.  But after awhile, by chapter 20 or so, it gets tedious and I started to think:  “Hey dude, seriously, this chick is not worth all this.”   What is so great about Dejah?  She is a hot babe.  And she’s a princess. Other than that, she’s pretty dull and pathetic.  Carter kind of agrees with this, too. After all in chapter eleven he is conversing with her and after she shares her opinion he thinks:

It was good logic, good, earthly, feminine logic, and if it satisfied her I certainly could pick no flaws in it.

Feminine logic. Which is not really logic at all, is it? It’s basically belief/emotion. Certainly not rational and scientific.  Now, let’s not be too picayune, but do compare this comment to the earlier quote wherein Carter admits that his is a rash and impulsive mind – not given to “tiresome mental processes.”  Maybe he just really bonds with this “feminine logic” stuff?  Don’t tell him I said that, he is an indefatigable swordsman!

In chapter sixteen we are given another gem of Carter’s savvy ways with women:

I verily believe that a man’s way with women is in inverse ratio to his prowess among men.  The weakling and the saphead have often great ability to charm the fair sex, while the fighting man who can face a thousand real dangers unafraid, sits hiding in the shadows like some frightened child.

And there you have it. . . .

Well, the reason I mentioned most of this is because this romance is actually the motive and driving force of the plot.  Not, believe it or not, the thirst for survival or the desire to return to Earth.  Carter is perfectly thrilled to stay on Mars forever – as long as he has his Dejah Thoris. So, I guess it’s a decent idea to understand the motives for this whole thing.

A Princess of Mars – E. R. B.; cover art: F. Frazetta

The action in the book is non-stop.  It reads like the most action-filled comic book, just one scenario after another involving magnificent feats of daring, physical ability, and bravery.  Climbing, flying, chasing, running, swordsmanship, jumping, etc.  John Carter is beyond Olympian-level awesome at everything.  I think I got a bit tired toward the end – back and forth among tribes and warriors, back and forth, back and forth. I don’t know; I feel like Burroughs probably spent more time on the first half of the book than the second.  Nevertheless, it is easy to see how this novel lends itself to live-action film. And it is typical of pulp-adventure stories, so the amount of action is not surprising. But the interesting facets, peppering the novel during Carter’s exploits, are cool – and could easily draw in a reader who is searching for imaginative science fiction.  For example, the Atmosphere Machine. I need more about that.

Anyway, I intend to read the next in the series – eventually. No hurry here.

4 stars

The Big Time

The Big Time – Fritz Leiber; ACE, 1982; cover art: Vincent Di Fate

I finished The Big Time by Fritz Leiber in a day and a half.  I just sped through this book!  Well, I am going to say right now at the beginning of this review:  this is not a book everyone can appreciate.  I wholeheartedly believe to get the five-star rating (that I am bestowing on this novel), you have to be partially insane.  You have to be able to see the absurdity in things, you have to have a big and strong imagination, and you have to have wit in spades.  Now, I do not make any claims regarding whether the converse is true, i.e. if you do not like it, it is because you have no wit/imagination, etc.  However, I do think if you take everything seriously and have little or no sense of humor, you will really have a ranting raving “review” to write if you read this book!

The Big Time was first published in 1958.  I read the ACE 1982 edition with the Vincent Di Fate cover.  Whole volumes have been written on the author – he was an interesting fellow with ups and downs and excitements galore.  Nevertheless, this is the first work I have read by him.  He was a preacher, an actor, an alcoholic, and a chessman.  He was supposedly influenced by the famous authors of the early 1900s, including H. P. Lovecraft (well, who wasn’t?).   The Big Time reads a lot like how one might expect an author with this resume to write.  And for a whole mess of readers out there – it is uncomfortable and disappointing.

There is a very short introduction to this novel written by the author and a bit of a longer afterword (previously the 1976 introduction to this story) by Robert Thurston.  Without these two guideposts, I am not sure I would have made it through the book.  If your edition does not have these bits, good luck!

I started reading this novel and I was confused; the thing is jumbled and silly.  Everything – every word – seems completely random.  It seem to start in media res, but who can tell?  And the narrator – how I hated the narrator with an immense and fiery wrath!  It seemed the narrator was unfocused, dumb as a brick, and personified the worst elements of certain stereotypes.  Now, do not get me wrong – I have read plenty of “in media res” novels.  Also, I am relatively okay with things that are zany and oblique.  But this!!! This was atrocious and I very nearly put the book into the “Going to Thrift Store Pile.”  If it weren’t for the guideposts of the introduction and the afterword, I swear I would not have made it through.

The characters number twelve.  Each one is relatively significant/important to the plot of the book.  Greta is the main character and narrator.  She is the one that immediately induced violent repulsed reactions in me.  By the end of the novel, I am cheering for her and I think she is a hoot-and-a-half. Complete turnarounds for characters, like this, are remarkably rare.

The back of the book (and the description found in many places online) reads:  This is war:  The biggest, longest war that anyone could imagine.  The soldiers are recruited at the moment of death to fight through all of time.  The goal is to change the past, and insure victory in the future.  The Change Winds are blowing.  Welcome to the Big Time.  And from this – I think the reader may expect a war story? Or a commentary on warfare?  Or even a unique (and fun) concept which puts a variety of soldiers from a variety of eras onto the battlefield at once. . .  But this is a key problem; the reader should not believe the hype! Sure, that is the overall framework of this novel, but only as a vague “background.”

As I read along, I kept wondering about the Snakes and the Spiders (the two alleged sides of the war).  When are we going to learn about them? What are they like? Why are they doing this? What strategies do they use?  What side do we wish we were on?  All of these questions and more I found myself asking and never coming upon the answers.  So, there is this really aggravated curiosity that was being developed and though I was hating the book, I kept reading (thankfully!).  I suspect most readers stop at this point because they get too frustrated.

Then suddenly, I found pieces falling into place (and after reading this novel, I do want to always capitalize “Place”).  And I started to care about the characters and the storyline.  Not everything was roses and smiles, but I was doing a lot better and somehow Greta had wormed her way into my heart and I was appreciating her random and silly exclamations, outbursts, and sarcasm.

Except Bruce and Lili, who were still holding hands and beaming gently.  I decided they were the kind of love that makes brave, which it doesn’t do to me.  It just gives me two people to worry about. – pg. 64, Chapter 6

Greta’s narration is really a stream of consciousness.  For better or worse, though, she isn’t one of the great minds of the kosmos.  She’s an Entertainer, which in this novel is something like a therapist, nurse, call-girl, and waitress.  So, she interrupts herself, uses slang, makes silly exclamations, and loses her train of thought.

Somehow (or by the sheer magic of insanity + genius) the storyline moves along.  Bruce Marchant, on page 72, jumps up onto the bartop and begins a rousing speech that both questions the premise of the whole novel, and also causes turmoil among each and every character.  Leiber makes the character do this by a simple prop from earlier in the book:  a black glove from Chapter Two.  So what seemed extremely random earlier, is now connecting characters and plotline and I became a fully-engaged reader.

The rousing speech causes the characters to choose sides.  Presumably, all the characters are on the army of the Spiders…. now they have to “willingly” choose to be on Bruce’s side or the militant’s side.  And each side has its own motives to consider.  There is tension and fighting and surprises.  Finally, the story actually turns into a sort of mystery.  The characters and I are all trying to solve a mystery.  The tension is eased here and there by the now-amusing Greta.  She has a helluva role to play in the novel, besides just narrate away.

“Here it comes,” I thought, wishing I could faint. On top of everything, on top of death even, they had to drag in the nightmare personally stylized for me, the horror with my name on it.  I wasn’t going to be allowed to blow up peacefully.  They weren’t satisfied with an A-bomb.  They had to write my private hell into the script.  – pg. 142, Chapter 14

The resolution is interesting and fun.  It also seems to work out alright for each character.  The last chapter allows a brief return to a deeper speculation as to what The Big Time is and what is going on with this Change War and whatnot with the Spiders vs. Snakes.  I feel it works for those readers who simply cannot let go of the idea that that is what the novel is about.  But for me, it was inconsequential. Not bad, just not needed.

This novel is weird and has weird elements – things that made me truly think that only an insane person could come up with them.  And then the idea of squashing all of this in an outside-of-time/space war?  With a spare number of distinct characters? Genius. And insane.  This novel, over many I have read, walks the perfect line between genius and insanity.  It also presents a slew of concepts to toy around with as far as space/time/zombies.  If you like time travel stories or novels wherein “time is out of joint,” this is for you. So fans of PKD and Douglas Adams will love this. As in PKD (Cp. UBIK) not every artefact is explained – if you need it explained, you might as well read a different book.  I loved this because I was both amused and impressed.  Be advised, not all readers will stomach this – but if you make the attempt, just keep reading!

5 stars

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